Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image
Without “Lincoln’s boys,” there might be no “Lincoln” --- no legend, no taller-than-life image, no great emancipator leading us through our most troubled hours. Without Lincoln’s boys, Lincoln might have shrunk to ordinary size, remembered but not a universally admired, even exalted, father figure. Without Lincoln’s boys, the Republican Party would not have its most cherished icon. John Hay and John Nicolay are the “boys,” the subjects of this remarkable account by political historian Joshua Zeitz.
Hay and Nicolay were Lincoln’s closest, most trusted advisors and friends. They were a two-man “White House Press Corps” at a time when that concept did not yet exist. The two Midwesterners met in school and fell in with Lincoln before he became president. Nicolay, a Bavarian-born editor and political activist, was Lincoln’s first appointee, his private secretary; Hay, of Scots descent and a lifelong government worker, who was younger than Nicolay and destined to be linked to him for life, became his assistant. Deputized by the President to be his eyes and ears, and destined to experience history in the making, Nicolay parlayed with skirmishing Indians in Minnesota, and Hay visited the eerily abandoned plantation houses of the Union-occupied South.
"In these times, when we pick apart our heroes by examining everything from their kitchen sinks to their genetic code, Lincoln stands as tall as ever, and we still seek to idealize him. If his image is largely untarnished, it is in part because of the efforts of Nicolay and Hay."
After Lincoln’s assassination, the two became partners in an enormous and significant undertaking, composing from Lincoln’s many papers a 10-volume biography (nearly 5,000 pages, serialized in Century Magazine) that would influence historical thinking and create a legend.
The legendary status was well-deserved; it had only to be aired. Lincoln had told the two that the Civil War proved that “popular government is not an absurdity,” an overarching principle that Hay and Nicolay had often contemplated while traveling in Europe after the war. To fashion the Lincoln story, the two Johns shared composition tasks but gave final right of approval to Robert Lincoln, here revealed as more three-dimensional than usually depicted. The reader is invited to imagine how arduously the three-way work proceeded in an age of pens, inkstands, and messages delivered by hand. It took nearly 20 years. The two authors refused to smooth over the rift of the war; the conflict had been caused, they asserted, by “an uprising of the national conscience against a secular wrong.” They wanted Lincoln to be remembered as a leader who grappled with the tormenting issue of slavery and its damage to democracy, ensuring that the right side won.
In these times, when we pick apart our heroes by examining everything from their kitchen sinks to their genetic code, Lincoln stands as tall as ever, and we still seek to idealize him. If his image is largely untarnished, it is in part because of the efforts of Nicolay and Hay. As Zeitz says, “They were ‘Lincoln men’…and they meant to tell their story so that the rest of the world would know the man as they did.”
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on February 14, 2014